How a Simple Bag Is Rescuing the World's Black-Eyed Peas

By protecting this crucial crop from the dreaded cowpea weevil, farmers are gaining greater economic security.
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Dieudonné Baributsa

African cowpeas—known to many as black-eyed peas—are a wonder crop, loaded with agricultural, ecological, and nutritional benefit. But they have an unfortunately robust enemy which vanquishes them after a month or two in storage: the mighty bruchid, or cowpea weevil. Bruchids render that lovely bagful of food, and all that farmer’s hard work, worthless.

Suppose you dreamed up a $2, low-tech, pesticide-free bruchids solution which could be deployed repeatedly, amortizing that small investment over many years, saving the farmers’ product. It would be a trifecta of increasing food security, improving nutrition, and raising farmer incomes.

Reader, it exists. Perhaps the Purdue Improved Crop Storage (PICS) bag isn’t the catchiest of brand names, but this deceptively simple triple bag, where adopted, has been increasing farmers’ incomes significantly. The triple bags consist of two heavy plastic inner bags, one fitting inside the other, which fits inside a third woven, tear-resistant outer bag. Each bag is tied, hermetically sealing its contents, before being placed in the next bag. Storing the harvest in airtight bags eliminates the oxygen that support the critters. The eggs don’t mature and gradually disintegrate, leaving the cowpeas undisturbed.

BTB—before triple bagging—farmers were forced to sell cowpeas as quickly as possible, along with all their fellow farmers, suppressing prices. Since the crop didn’t last in storage, it was worthless if not sold; farmers were disinclined to grow a lot of it. But the improved storage allows them to both store their harvest for up to a year, for both personal consumption and strategically timed market sales. Food security for family and community is strengthened by reliable storage, and there’s more cash in farmers’ pocketbooks. 

Purdue University received funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to continue pursuing their work finding a solution to the bruchid problem. In partnership with African scientists and farmers they introduced Purdue Improved Cowpea Bags in 2007.

As with any solution for the low-income, rural developing world market, distribution can be a bigger challenge than design. PICS bags are now manufactured in Nigeria, increasing their availability. Bag demand is inconsistent due their ease of reuse. Profit margins are tight. Not surprisingly, vendors don’t always have them in stock, and farmers can’t just order them on Amazon. 

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Betsy Teutsch is a writer based in Philadelphia. She is currently working on a book, 100 Under $100: The Women's Global Toolkit.

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